Spain beat Netherlands to reach first World Cup semi-final

It is unlikely that Salma Baralulo would have chosen football. It wasn’t her only choice, of course. The 19-year-old Spain striker was also a bright prospect in parallelo track and field, and was a talented runner who represented his country at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. Her chosen discipline is 400 meters. He still holds the national under-20 record for the distance.

She is also the person her country needs at the end of a marathon.

Spain’s meeting with the Netherlands on Friday in the quarter-finals of this Women’s World Cup will always be close. As Spain’s draining, narrow, 2-1 win proved, closeness can be a disadvantage. Only a hair’s breadth exists between these teams: the Spanish, Europe’s great power-in-waiting, and the Dutch, renowned for their skill but remarkable for their resilience.

Four years ago, that combination was enough to take the Netherlands to the World Cup final against the United States. This year, it started to look like a return trip might be on the cards. Andries Jonker’s team progressed from the group stage in more impressive than spectacular fashion. It is significantly ahead of the US. Thanks to the reflexes and concentration of its goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar, it overcame South Africa in the round of 16.

The Netherlands lacked its cutting edge – star striker Vivian Miedema was one of several players absent from this World Cup due to a serious knee injury – but found a way to make up for it by blunting everyone else. When forward Lyneth Bierenstein met with reporters before the game, the team’s confidence was growing enough to take a slight swipe at Team USA. Behrenstein said much of the talk came from the Americans, who lost to Sweden in the round of 16. “You have to do it on the pitch,” he said.

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It seemed for a while that she would be as good as her word. In the bright winter sunshine of Wellington, New Zealand, Spain dominated possession as Spain always dominate possession. As Spain always create chances, Spain also created chances.

But it could not overcome the Dutch. Spain saw Van Domselaar stymied whenever he could muster.

Spain found the stadium’s physical infrastructure picking sides when van Domselaar was beaten: in the middle of the first half, Alba Redondo hit the post twice in a matter of seconds. A few minutes later, Esther Gonzalez had a goal disallowed for offside, albeit only after referee Stephanie Frapart consulted video replays.

It’s that kind of game: subtle differences and substantial ones. For Spain – what if Redondo had scored, or if Fraparte had noticed that Stephanie van der Gracht handled the ball in a clearance; Or if Gonzalez had delayed a fraction of a second? But, above all, it was for the Netherlands.

What if Beirenstein’s winning penalty was not ruled out for a clear push on Spain defender Irene Paredes? After Mariona Caldente converted three penalties, or the only penalty that should have been awarded, the Netherlands could have led to a heartbreak instead of finding themselves.

And what if Beerenstein had scored on any of the three clear chances he had as the game entered the dying stages? The Dutch at least took the game away, van der Gracht saved his conscience after his handball led to Caldente’s penalty. Digging the equalizer The game went into injury time.

Bierenstein could have won it twice, keeping the Dutch in the match, but he couldn’t convert any chances.

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Paralluelo is very efficient. She took the ball from Jenny Hermoso, flashed her hips, dropped her shoulder and burst clear into the Dutch penalty area, moving with great quickness and ease for a tough Dutch defence. She positioned herself and fired a shot past van Domselaar

The race is on in the Netherlands. Spain will pick up the pace.

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